Imagining the Dying Earth
The Dying Earth | Eyes of the Overworld | Cugel's Saga | Rhialto the Marvellous
Jack Vance's Dying Earth saga is filled to brim with extraordinary creatures of strange origins. While reading the books years ago for the first time, my imagination was running wild with how these critters, monsters, beasts and peculiar peoples might look. I tried searching online for depictions, and only came across a couple I found of satisfactory quality and depth, so I decided to do some concepts of my own. I will cut segments from the books to accompany my illustrations.
What got me into Vance was a translated copy of the Dying Earth that I picked up at my local library. I thought it was masterfully translated into finnish (by the late Yrjö Juhani Koskinen), with many of Vance's most ingenious flourishes and adages intact and often made into weavings of archaic finnish. I hungered for more, but to my dismay found that my library had just two more books by Vance: another translated collection of independent scifi-novellas (among others, 'The Narrow Land') and an original english paperback of Madouc from the Lyonesse saga. I ordered a bunch of old Vance books from eBay and I haven't been able to put them down since.
Later on I want to do more of these illustration series from Vance's other books, like the Planet of Adventure, Durdane, Alastor Cluster, the Big Planet, the Demon Princes and the massive Lyonesse Saga. I had a hard time deciding which one to cover first, as all of Vance's books are so incredibly innovating and refreshing, so I started with my personal favourite, and possibly his most recognized work, the Tales of the Dying Earth, with the novellas, Eyes of the Overworld, Cugel's Saga and Rhialto the Marvellous.
Keep in mind that these concepts are how I personally imagined them to be by reading the novels. I won't be going into too much detail with these; my main take out of his is to practice my rapid visual conceptualization skills. There might exist depictions apart from these (and probably do); I have seen only few and will largely not take them into account. If you detect a major mistake amidst the depictions, please email me (email@example.com) and if I have time I will try to correct it.
Here's a disclaimer: I do not own rights to any of Vance's creations nor have I been commissioned to work on illustrations by the copyright holders. These works amount to fan-art, merely. Please enjoy.
I'll start with the 'Eyes of the Overworld', which is the beginning of Cugel's journeys (and beyond doubt the funniest book I've ever read). I'll do the 'Dying Earth' novellas possibly later, with Turjan of Miir, T'sais, Mazirian, Ulan Dhor and others. The story of 'Eyes of the Overworld' starts in Almery fair, where Cugel the Clever is selling some sort of baubles from a booth. Right off the bat we are served to the knowledge that our hero is among many things a grave-robber, who is presently peddling trinkets yanked from a lead coffin, whose previous occupant Cugel has reportedly 'discarded'. This is how Cugel is described in the first few lines of the novel:
Cugel was a man of many capabilities, with a disposition at once flexible and pertinacious. He was long of leg, deft of hand, light of finger, soft of tongue. His hair was the blackest of black fur, growing low down his forehead, coving sharply back above his eyebrows. His darting eye, long inquisitive nose and droll mouth gave his somewhat lean and bony face an expression of vivacity, candor, and affability. He had known many vicissitudes, gaining therefrom a suppleness, a fine discretion, a mastery of both bravado and stealth.
I have to admit that Cugel is up there as one of the most entertaining characters I've encountered in literature; an unintentionally hilarious rogue, fancying himself a brilliant, beautiful cavalier with a wit like a razor, when in fact he is a long-faced cutpurse, imposter, murderer and rapist; to say the least he is a man of questionable ethics and perverse cunning. Just the first few pages of 'Overworld' give a great overview of his motivations (he sets off to rob the 'Laughing Magician' Iucounu), resourcefulness (to discover if Iucounu has any guardian beasts on the premises, he mimics the sounds of common animals to probe their presence) and the complete disregard of others in favor of his own gain (he attempts to lay blame on the vendor who persuaded him to rob Iucounu). In many ways Cugel is a product of his world - cruel, macchiavellian, opportunistic, peculiar.
Cugel inhabits a moribund world, an Earth eon older than ours, where magic is commonplace and the peoples of the Earth scattered and often either destitute or only concerned about their immidiate lives. As the fading red sun is giving out its last, so has the Dying Earth regressed; most folk are content with a meager, simple existence. A sort of sullen fatalism in regard to one's fate is a recurring sentiment. I've heard that Gary Gygax, a creator of Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game took a lot of inspiration from Vance's books (Cugel is obviously a classic Rogue/Thief-class).
Now, I am aware that Cugel gets his iconic many-brimmed hat much later, but I just wanted to include it in this drawing nevertheless. It's hard to imagine him without it.
Iucounu's description: Fianosther pointed across the way to a man wearing garments of black. This man was small, yellow of skin, bald as a stone. His eyes resembled knots in a plank; his mouth was wide and curved in a grin of chronic mirth.
Here's my take on Iucounu, holding Firx, the extraterrestrial creature in his sweaty palms. I wanted to have him look kind of harmless and even dumb, as his mode of conversation brings to mind an absentminded professor. It may well be this is simply a show, but I felt that charade could be also reflected in his appearance. As a powerful wizard, he has lost much of the sense a mortal could make of him. I imagine his skin tone is the result of one too many alchemical brew ingested.
He departed the chamber and after a moment returned with a covered glass bowl containing a small white creature, all claws, prongs, barbs and hooks, now squirming angrily. "This," said Iucounu, "is my friend Firx, from the star Achernar, who is far wiser than he seems. Firx is annoyed at being separated from his comrade with whom he shares a vat in my work-room. He will assist you in the expeditious discharge of your duties." lucounu stepped close, deftly thrust the creature against Cugel's abdomen. It merged into his viscera, and took up a vigilant post clasped around Cugel's liver.
Cugel gets caught casing Iucounu's mansion, and is forced by circumstance to do the Laughing Magician's bidding, which is to find a magical cusp from the town of Smolod in the far north. Iucounu summons a demon to transport Cugel there in a cage which the demon carries through the night to its destination, and thus our rogue is thrust on his odyssey of mishaps.
After lamenting his fate and cursing Iucounu, Cugel discovers the village of Smolod and its accompanying village, Grodz, where the servitors to the folk of Smolod toil. There exists a symbiosis between these two settlements, as the lords and ladies of Smolod carry in their eyes magical lenses with which they can view the ordinary world through the eyes of the demon Underherd, in essence, viewing the present world as the Overworld, a realization of all your dreams and hopes.
After escaping from Smolod, Cugel gets into a bit of a jam with a trio of subhuman bandits, and retreats to a ruined tower nearby. With the advice of a specter bound to the ruins for all eternity, he outwits the bandits and makes short work of them. I think this segment is rather clever with the curses of the ghost and the dying bandit negating eachother; I sketched how the ghost might look - a spirit clad in tatters of a burial shroud, proud and terrifying.
"Demolish this fort. While stone joins stone I must stay, even while Earth grows cold and swings through darkness."
Cugel happens to ask for directions from a group of sea-shell wearing faelike beings having fun and prattling amongst themselves on a lonely beach.
At the far end, where the ocean surged and dark water heaved, four large shells had attached themselves. These now were open; heads looked forth, attached to naked shoulders and arms. The heads were round and fair, with soft cheeks, blue-gray eyes, tufts of pale hair.
They slight him by soiling his clothes and Cugel mauls one of them by smashing its shell with a heavy stone. As his last act, the creature places a malediction on Cugel. I found this to be one of Cugel's darkest moments, as the critters of the sea seemed so innocent and full of gaiety, undeserving of such demise at the cruel hands of Cugel for the harmless gag they played on him.
[...] He seized a heavy rock and dashed it down upon the shell, crushing it. Snatching forth the squealing creature, Cugel hurled it far up the beach, where it lay staring at him, head and small arms joined to pale entrails. In a faint voice it asked, "Why did you treat me so? For a prank you have taken my life from me, and I have no other."
In the following chapter, where Derwe Coreme is explored in more detail, it is heavily implied she is in fact somewhat versed in magic, at least her footmen seem to think so ("The wiles of Derwe Coreme exceed my understanding. By some device she learned of your presence and so has issued the invitation which you have just heard."; "The sergeant looked at Derwe Coreme, who laughed. "As I bade you, or fear my revenge, which is as you know.""). She is further delineated when Cugel reaches the palace of Cil, where she resides and holds sway over the region as the ruler, as the true ruler, Slaye, has lost his amulet of power and is unable to oust Derwe Coreme, so obviously she is somewhat capable of witchcraft, otherwise being a frail, anemic girl.
As Cugel enters the weather-worn yard to the palace of Cil, he is stalked by a ghoul, hiding amongst the statues to the foregone rulers, and barely escapes the thing with his life. The creature is narily explained in any great detail (other than being white of hue and vampiric in nature), but I imagined it as a gaunt, freakishly tall abomination. I made just a fast sketch:
As Derwe Coreme is about to have Cugel murdered for the amulet he accidentally discovered, Slaye interferes and summons a black demon by fiddling with the amulet in Cugel's possession to kill all in the room save him. Cugel and Derwe Coreme accidentally conjure up another supernatural entity, called Vanille, to combat this beast but it is ultimately ripped apart by the black demon. Cugel is forced to relinquish the amulet, and he and Derwe Coreme are cast out of Cil.
Having escaped Cil, Cugel travels towards the foreboading Mountains of Magnatz in the south with the exiled Derwe Coreme accompanying him. With moderate complexity it is now explained that Cugel immidiately takes advantage of the now vulnerable Derwe Coreme! I actually did not even catch on to this on my first reading years ago; with such finesse it is described:
Cugel clapped his arms and jigged back and forth, while Derwe Coreme stood pinch-faced and limp beside the old byre. Cugel presently became irritated by her posture, which implied a subtle disparagement of himself. [...] For a brief period after their expulsion from Cil she had carried herself with an inappropriate hauteur, which Cugel had tolerated with a quiet smile for himself. Their first couching had been both eventful and taxing; thereafter Derwe Coreme had modified at least her overt behavior. Her face, delicate and clear of feature, had lost little of its brooding melancholy, but the arrogance had altered, as milk becomes cheese, to a new and wakeful appreciation of reality.
As if this wasn't insult enough, later on the pair come across a tribe of busiacos living near the Great Elm forest, who are described as thus:
The rogues did not improve upon closer view. Their hair was long and, matted, their faces gnarled,
with eyes like beetles and mouths showing foul yellow teeth.
Cugel ends up getting swindled by these wily brutes, and consequently sells Derwe Coreme to them in exchange for information on how to evade first "glass reptiles" (imaginary beings no doubt), and later beasts called 'erbs' and 'grues' while trudging through the Great Erm to reach the Mountains of Magnatz. These creatures are not described further in any way, though I vaguely recall that it is done later in the novels, so I won't attempt any depictions at the moment. Obviously she protests her fate both verbally and physically, but is "silenced by some means Cugel did not observe."
I find it amusing how comedically ruthless and practical everyone is in these novels: there is a moment where Cugel, upon realizing that he's been cheated and that the "shortcut" he was lead on was nothing but a ruse, ponders on whether to return and rescue Derwe Coreme from servitude and slavery to the filthy and loutish busiacos. Were this your average hero no doubt he would have attempted such an action, but I suspect here Cugel is regarding the beautiful Derwe Coreme more as his possession having been stolen than a human being taken against her will, and even so ultimately decides against a return, and just leaves her to "come to terms with her new life." Savage.
Cugel finds himself in a halfway inn leading to the mountains. The patrons he meets there (among others, a witch-chaser wearing tall black boots) explain that only a fool would attempt the route across the mountains, as the trail is fraught with perils. The innkeeper attempts to sway Cugel to relinquish what little possessions he has, explaining that a dead man has no need of wealth. In the end Cugel opts to take the route anyway, as the alternative to crossing here would be even more arduous and possibly lethal (there is a mention of a city besieged by basilisks, which I found intriguing... but it is never explained in more detail). As he was forewarned, Cugel soon finds himself stalked by a deodand:
...taller and heavier than himself, black as midnight except for shining white eyes, white teeth and claws, wearing straps of leather to support a green velvet skirt.
Our hero outsmarts the creature by maiming it with a large rock. In an attempt to spare its wretched life, the deodand offers to lead Cugel by such paths as to evade its ilk, and an agreement is made (and enhanced by a collar and rope by which Cugel controls the creature of dread). Soon enough Cugel and his captive are being pursued by several deodands, only keeping their distance due to the signs of their imprisoned kin. Once again Cugel is saved in the nick of time by a group of woodsmen, who summarily execute the deodands and take Cugel as their guest into their mountain village of Vull.
Here Cugel meets the hetman Hylam Wiskode, who tours Cugel through his small village. It becomes apparent that the old Watcher, having his post high atop the village in a cupoled tower has perished, and a new one must be appointed with haste. Cugel, enticed with the various benefits the position endows offers himself as the replacement Watcher. One of the perks of the profession is the freedom to select any maiden from the village as your spouse. During that night's merrymaking and dancing Cugel spots the young Marlinka, who he decides upon. Cugel attempts to bed her without due delay, but the girl manages to elude him in the crowd, much to the rogue's dismay.
Taking his post up in the slender and simplistic five hundred feet tower, Cugel soon discovers that he has been once again been taken for a ride: the watchtower has none of the niceties he was promised, the food is rather stale and barely sufficient, and the bed a disreputable pallet. To add insult to the injury, Cugel is deliberately trapped in the tower, without means of descent.
Before departing the tower, the hetman explains the goal of the watch: to keep an eye for a mythical villain called Magnatz, and indicates two objects of import in regard to this simple task. First, the optical device with which the watchman can spectate far away lands; second, a rope which sounds the great gong, indicating Magnatz's return. The hetman further deliberates that ringing the gong in any other circumstance brings about an unusually cruel penalty: the perpetrator is ripped apart with chains and his remains tossed into the whirlpools of the lake nearby.
There are some interesting bits of lore in this segment, and it's a shame they are not explored further: Guzpah the Great, who brought eight armies to attack Magnatz; Mount Temus, Merce, Padagar Pass, and the titanic ruins where Magnatz's palace allegedly was situated. Casual mentions like these which Vance makes from time to time help bring the dying earth universe to life and set my imagination running wild.
Cugel, however, is not called (by himself) 'Clever' for nothing. He discovers a way to escape the tower: by using a cloth rope tossed around the shaft of the tower he descends one small hop at a time. In the dead of the night, he takes revenge on the villagers of Vull, robs their treasury and abducts Marlinka, who is further pacified by the horror of the realization that no one is attending the tower, and again Cugel displays his lack of mercy by forcing himself upon the girl.
At this point, Magnatz awakes from his slumber and as before Cugel only barely escapes with his life. I guess the whirlpools of the Vull Lake were meant to be the inhaling and exhaling of this enormous creature. Magnatz is not described in any great detail, so I just drew how I imagined him to be: for some reason I felt he would have a very vacant gaze, like a titan gazing on ants before brushing them off. I don't think he would be humanoid, nor very man-looking, as his proportions are so much grander; he would be partially covered by underwater vegetation, having slumbered for so long as to almost be forgotten. As a sidenote, there is a monster similar to Magnatz in finnish folklore called Iku-Turso.
Though his actions were once again more than questionable, this time Cugel did have a reason for righteous malice towards the villagers of Vull. They left him up to rot for all of his age in the watch tower, fully expecting him to die up there, possibly after years of loneliness and dread.
Iucounu, upon discharging Cugel on this mission for the cusp, provided him with a magical amulet capable of turning the inedible to edible, but... the substance in question will retain its taste, however nourishing the amulet makes it - an example of the mordant humor of Iucounu the Laughing Magician. Funnily enough, at the beginning of this chapter we are catered to the knowledge that Cugel, in order to survive has had to devour the literal refuse of a bearded thawn to survive! I can't stop the laughter when I read this part. I think a lot of Vance's humour comes from the sheer absurdity of the situations his characters get themselves into, delivered with an earnest but highly convoluted way, alike the author was describing an advanced scientific process, when in fact his hero is, well... eating shit.
Trudging through a vast stony plain, Cugel comes across a strange excavation, where seemingly incomprehensible forms have been cut into the rock crevasses. He meets a gang of workmen who have been commissioned by someone called sorcerer Pharesm. His purpose is to lure an otherworldly, dimension-travelling being called TOTALITY by creating the perfect surrounding to attract this creature, and this arduous project has been underway for over three hundred years.
Up the trail came a man of imposing stature wearing a voluminous white robe. His countenance was benign; his hair was like yellow down; his eyes were turned upward as if rapt in the contemplation of an ineffable sublimity. His arms were sedately folded, and he moved without motion of his legs.
Pharesm, being very focused, neat and diligent about his project, seemed like someone who would not flaunt with his clothing or apparel, thus I did not draw him as a motley, embellished sort of wizard with a pointy hat, the beard, a staff and the like (none of these were described anyway). I think Vance often attempts to steer away from archeotypes in his writings, to reach a certain uniqueness.
The workmen are apparently rather peculiar in their appearance: the overseer has a forefinger that can extend to great lengths at will, while others vary wildly in shape and size. This had me thinking that possibly Pharesm has somehow transmuted some of the workers to further suit his needs for precise rock-hewing. Ah, this place is wondrous in its adventitiousness!
I found very intriguing the depictions of Pharesm's work-camp. He has some sort of a compound nearby where the workmen gather during the nights, study literature (among others, Insect Identification, the Heraldry of the Kings of Old Gomaz, Unison Chanting, Practical Catalepsy and Orthodox Doctrine...), engage in nympharium privileges, and where the wizard's laboratories and the like are situated. The palace is further described below; I made a small sketch of how I imagined it.
[...] a long low building of melted rock surmounted by eight oddly shaped domes of copper, mica and bright blue glass.
1. Main Hub
5. Workers' Quarters
6. Wizard's Tower
The hungry Cugel is turned away by Pharesm, who performs a divination on his fingertips and decrees him unsuitable for employment in his work-gang. Disappointed and with his stomach grumbling, Cugel walks away, only to encounter something strange:
[...] he spied a most peculiar creature: essentially a gelatinous globe swimming with luminous particles from which a number of transparent tubes or tentacles dwindled away to nothing. Cugel bent to examine the creature, which pulsed with a slow internal rhythm. [...] The creature displayed qualities reminiscent of both coelenterate and echinoderm. A terrene nudibranch? A mollusc deprived of its shell? More importantly, was the creature edible?
This of course is the much-anticipated TOTALITY, and Cugel ends up first tormenting the small critter by prodding it in his curiosity, then charring it on a brazier and devouring it. Pharesm's reactions, when he hears of this, are utterly priceless ("should I explode you this instant into the most minute of your parts the atonement would measure one tenmillionth of your offense").
Imagine having worked diligently for five hundred years for naught! Enraged, he ends up dragging Cugel with him to his workroom and after some clairvoyance, sends the rogue millions of years into the past with powerful magic to track down the time-traveling oddity, then bring it into contact with an ivory disk representing NULLITY (which apparently traps TOTALITY in place).
Cugel wakes up to a world lit by a wan light from an orange sun. He witnesses the Winged Beings, apparently denizens of a dark moon orbiting the Earth, only visible when it casts its shadow upon the sun. They serve the Great God Yelisea by taking a person who about to die and bringing him or her to the blessed land Byssom, as explained by the Farwan elder later on. The exact reality of the situation was a bit unclear to me, but this was the arrangement of the Winged Beings and the Farwans.
A great winged creature wearing white robes flapped on high along the face of the cliff. The wings were long, ribbed with black chitin, sheathed with grey membrane.
Possibly these creatures were parasitic/vampiric and consumed for their sustenance the old and feeble of the Farwan people, and why not other such communities as well. The dark moon in which they dwell seemed to me like an artificial satellite, orbiting the Earth, but it could just as well be a legend. The winged beings were not detailed much, so the drawing is likewise vague.
The Folk of Farwan accept Cugel amongst them for a time. It's curious with how much detail Vance describes these people:
The villagers were of a type he had never before encountered, of no great stature, with generally large heads and long restless arms. Their skin was a rich pumpkin orange; their eyes and teeth were black; their hair, likewise black, hung smootly down beside the faces of the men to terminate in a fringe of blue beads, while the women wound their hair around white rings and pegs, to arrive at a coiffure of no small complexity.
The features were heavy at jaw and cheek-bone; the long wide-spaced eyes drooped in a droll manner at the outer corners. The noses and ears were long and were under considerable muscular control, endowing the faces with great vivacity.
The men wore flounced black kirtles, brown surcoats, headgear consisting of a wide black disk, a black cylinder, another lesser disk, surmounted by a gilded ball. The women wore black trousers, brown jackets with enameled disks at the navel, and at each buttock a simulated tail of green and red plumes, possibly an indication as to marital status.
Once again, while speaking to the Farwan Elder, Cugel is made privy to excellent details from this land lost in time. Among mentioned are places like Impergos, Tharuwe, Rhaverjand and the illustrious Sembers, whose peoples expelled the star-pirates, brought the sea to the Land of Platforms and whose Padara Palace is reknown for its splendor. I love this attention to minute detail; Vance knows how to tickle the mind's eye.
Cugel meets a native Farwan girl called Zhiaml Vraz and, allured by her charms, ends up sleeping with her in his reserved inn room (apparently furnished with ... a painting of a peculiarly ugly baby which seemed trapped or compressed in a transparent globe...). However, nothing can ever go smoothly for Cugel it seems, as the next morning he is accused of heresy for not performing 'the sacred rites' during his erotic congress with Zhiaml Vraz, and for similar excuses. It seems that even a million years in the past, our hero is still serving as the butt of this conspiracy and that. The villagers leave him for the Winged Beings' mercy. After a small bout with these cruel creatures, Cugel manages to locate TOTALITY and escapes back to his present time, only to find that the plan had not realized and the precious cosmic mollusc had evaded their grasp.
Despite his (deserved) harshness towards Cugel at some points, Pharesm is merciful and even compassionate. He feeds Cugel (albeit only after his slight), and does let him live even when he fails the mission, which is much more than most folks would have allowed him after his disasterous deeds.
As a sidenote, during his rant, Pharesm mentions that Cugel has possibly caused untold destruction while prodding, roasting and finally digesting TOTALITY, as the creature is in actuality some sort of symbolic, living representation of all of space, with its tentacles being infinite possibilities... or something to that nature. Taking this into account, and assuming Pharesm wasn't exaggerating or bluffing (or wrong), this might have been the most pernicious of Cugel's meddlings.
Garstang, Lodermulch, Voynod, Subucule
Statue of Gilfig
The Manse of Iucounu
Iucounu in a tube, being transported by Cugel in a cart
Cugel sitting on the shore
(c) Heikki Kuusipalo 2017 - return to skyesken.org